George, my ex-husband, is a painter. When we were still married and living together in Japan, the walls of our house in the suburb of Tokyo were covered with his paintings. They portrayed fruit markets in Mexico, crowded streets in New York City, misty mountains in the central Japan, and many other things. A lot of time passed, and then last December I was looking up at one of his paintings that hangs on the wall of my suburban Boston apartment. It is the only painting of George's I have. It is a landscape of our old wooden house in Tokyo. The same house that used to contain all his colorful artwork.
Looking at his painting, I started wondering how George had been doing. I hadn't seen him for about four years. Soon after moving to Massachusetts from Japan, we separated. He did not bother showing up in divorce court. Still, he often wrote to me or e-mailed me. I was not very good at responding to his letters, not because I did not want to, but because I just did not know what to say.
I realized that I had not had any word from George at least for about four or five months. It was unusual for such a long time to go by without any contact from him. George does not have a permanent address. He moves up and down on the East Coast as he likes. The last time I heard about George was when I talked to my car insurance agent. My agent went to New York City last summer to attend an opening reception at an art gallery in lower Manhattan where his cousin had a group show. There he happened to talk to one of other artists who was in the show. When my agent told him where he was from (Rockport, Massachusetts), the painter mentioned that his ex-wife used to live there and told her name. "I didn't know you used to be married," my car insurance agent told me. I don't feel like I used to be married, either. Probably because 95 % of our marriage deal took place in Japan.
All the proceedings, ceremony, party, and actual living as a married couple; countless arguments, responsibilities, financial troubles, compromises, despair, etc. After I came to the States, I dropped all of these things. I just dropped them.
Without knowing George's whereabouts, I went back to Japan to see my parents at the end of the year. After flying for 16 hours, I found myself sitting with my mother in the living room of my parents' house in Osaka. I did not know if I was asleep or awake. I do not know how anyone (for example, businessmen) can make that flight regularly. I always come out of it as a wreck.
Holding her teacup in her hands, my mother asked me how George had been doing. She told me that she usually received a Christmas card from George each year. But this holiday season nothing had come in the mail.
I explained to her what my car insurance agent told me; George had had a group show in New York City that summer. "Having a show in New York. That's wonderful," said my mother. Then we paused. I still felt as though I was flying. My body was in Osaka but not my mind.
"He was ok on September 11th, wasn't he?" My mother sounded strange. Somehow her voice sounded like it was coming out of the telephone receiver. Although she was sitting right in front of me, the things she said did not reach me directly. This is hideous jetlag, I thought.
My sister, who has a condo in my parents' neighborhood, sat next to me. She asked us what we were talking about. My mother told her that we were wondering if George was fine on September 11th. "What? Are you saying he might have been killed in the Sep 11th attack?" my sister said and started laughing loudly. Almost hysterically. Her high-pitched laughing voice hurt my ears.
Immediately she apologized for laughing over such a sensitive topic nervously "But George-san and THAT September 11th incident? It's so...how can I say it...so...I can't think of a word". Then she started laughing again. This time my mother joined, too. Even while giggling, their eyes showed a sense of shame for laughing over that horrible event. I guess it struck them as bizarre that an ex-family member could be a victim of the tragedy that had the attention of the whole world. My mother left for the kitchen hurriedly to prepare dinner, looking embarrassed.
I went to my old room. George had stored many of his paintings in my parents' house. His art was now hanging on the wall of this room. I studied his paintings and began to wonder if I should try to contact somebody who might know George's whereabouts. It seemed to be my duty as an ex-wife. I was surprised by the fact that I did not feel any panic or worry. Had I used up all the emotions that I could possibly have for this particular person? Or was I just heavily jetlagged? I could partly understand why my sister and mother could not stop laughing. The September 11th incident was something you could watch on TV, but it was too heavy and vast to understand. How was it possible that someone they knew in Osaka could be involved? The only thing they could do was just to laugh it off.
I went to the Internet to check the e-mail address of Tim, the only person I remember among George's friends. I e-mailed him asking how I could contact George. After I sent the e-mail, the message somehow bounced back. It did not reach Tim. My mother came into the room. I explained to her about the technical problem I had been experiencing. She looked troubled. My mother sat down next to me saying, "well, what we can do now is..." She had been recently gaining pounds, especially around her waist. Wearing a pastel pink sweater, she looked huge. The fat under her chin was sagging. I had never seen my mother this big. Somehow I felt responsible for her being this large. I thought to myself. I'm not making Mom happy that's why she looks this terrible! My mother got along well with George. They once went to China together. Then George and I moved to the States and now only I had come back. Looking at her waist, all of the sudden I was determined to have a child just for her. Then she could let her one and only grandchild crawl on her big belly.
I returned to Boston soon after. I was not actually thinking that much about George but a sense of duty as an ex-wife was always hiding somewhere inside me. One day I attempted e-mailing Tim again. I wrote, " My mother wants to contact George. Do you know where he is right now? " The e-mail did not bounce back this time.
The next day Tim responded. As I was about to open his message, for the first time a strong emotion came over me. I was afraid. If George was really killed, what was I going to do? Tim's message started," George is in Florida right now. The contact number is ..." I immediately e-mailed my mother that George was fine.
I wondered why George had stopped communicating with not only me but my mother. I assumed that he had always thought it his responsibility as an ex-husband and also as an ex-son-in-law to keep in touch, but somehow about four or five months ago he decided to terminate his duty. I felt sad. I knew well that I did not have the right to feel this way, because I was the one who did not respond to his messages. Instead I should be glad that he is living here with me on this planet even though I would never know how to communicate with him any more.
(2002/3/17. This essay is on gate39.com.)